This morning I have been reading Describe the Distance, a short book by poet Quinn Latimer on the work of British artist Sarah Lucas. Early in the book Latimer introduces the topic of shame and with it the Greek concept of aidos.
Why does the word “shame” come to me, settle on the edge of my thoughts as though on some pale piece of paper, as though some animal? Considering this word, this animal, I see that it is no the English expression but the Greek that interests me here: Aidos. Its definitions are appropriately vast and kaleidoscopic, and by “appropriately,” I mean so in regards to Lucas’s larger body of work, in which shame is a figure with a hundred different faces, facets, expressions.
Latimer goes onto do list the elements in Lucas’ sculptures in which there are no faces, but a whole other manner of body parts created out of mundane items: melons breasts, light bulb penises, toilet-bowl vaginas. She then describes the semantic range of aidos (which has the Latin equivalent of pudor) as ranging from ‘awe’ and ‘moderation’ to ‘shyness’ and ‘dignity’, although it is most often translated as ‘sense of shame’. Turning to the poet Anne Carson, Latimer evokes the connection between aidos and sexual pleasure and even mentions how the plural – aidoia – can mean ‘sexual organs’ (literally: ‘things which one should have a sense of shame about’) – think here of the Latin equivalent pudenda.
Following Latimer’s lead, by looking at Lucas’ sculptures as aidoia we can appreciate how the artist addresses and challenges the simple correlation between bodies and the language of shame. At the same time, we could point to medical writers in antiquity, who utilized the term aioida to refer mater-of-factually to the sexual organs. Yet somewhere in between these two poles, consider this phrase from Galen’s On the Usefulness of Parts of the Body (6.14)
As to the outgrowths of skin at the ends of the genitals [ta aidoia] of both sexes, in women they are present for the sake of ornament…
This term ‘ornament’ (which I think is probably the Greek agalma, but I need to check) betrays how Galen engages the language of aidos even as he writes as a doctor. Euripides in his Hecuba uses the term to describe Polyxena’s breasts as ‘lovely as that of an image’. When considered in this way, how do Lucas’ sculptures celebrate the body, not only beyond any simplistic notion of shame, but also beyond the accusation of the ornamental functions of sculpture itself? These questions are especially pertinent to Lucas’ large-scale work of public art Perceval, about which she writes in an interview in The Brooklyn Rail:
“Perceval” is really my first and only, at the moment, piece of public art. I always found a lot of public art quite tiresome, especially public art in Britain. Not all of it, of course; there are some great things. Given that public art is really for everybody, it’s not necessarily for sort of an art going public. I think “Perceval” addresses this quite well. He’s basically a blown up mantelpiece ornament of a type that most people in England are quite familiar with—somebody in their family had one. He’s a Clydesdale: It’s a workhorse with a cart. Generally speaking, you’d find a barrel of beer or suchlike in the cart, because that’s what these horses were doing. In mine there are a couple of gigantic, oversized marrows made of concrete. I think of marrows as being a kind of fertility symbol because of their phallic shapes.
Lucas’ marrows, as ornamental aidoia, are, therefore, a very public statement about the need to renegotiate the terms of shame when engaging with art beyond the limits of the body. Of course melons, light bulbs and toilet-bowls are symbols for sexual organs, but at the same time they are transported (like the marrows of Perceval) by a sculptural mechanism and body in their own right.